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Chef Yia Vang is known for sharing the stories, food, and culture of Hmong people across the Twin Cities and the world. But as a kid growing up in Wisconsin, his family’s Hmong cuisine wasn’t always his favorite option.
“At times, we would look at the food that they make, and we’d be like, ‘Oh, gross, I don’t want to eat this stuff anymore. I want Mee-ka food. I want American food,’” Vang recalled, using the Hmong word for “American”—Mee-ka. “What we were saying to our mom was, ‘We just want to belong.’”
Oftentimes, Vang said, he found himself embracing American food like grilled cheese and Lunchables alongside classic Hmong dishes like Nqaij Tsaws, a braised pork dish paired with rice and mustard greens.
“That’s the beauty of America, right? Where you don’t have to pick which one, but all these little pieces create who we are,” Vang said. “As a kid growing up trying to figure out, ‘Should he be Hmong? Should he be American?’ I really found that there’s actually this really beautiful collision that creates this beautiful third culture where I sit comfortably.”
The name of his new pop-up concept, “Mee-Ka,” represents that third culture. The menu, debuting Wednesday, March 29, will feature dishes that merge Hmong and American food.
Mee-Ka will take over the Uptown Minneapolis space Vang’s Slurp pop-up noodle shop has called home for the last three months at 901 W. Lake St. Slurp’s menu will be available until 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25. After that, Vang said, the Slurp menu will be saved inside a vault and will perhaps resurface again some day.
Similar to Slurp, the menu at Mee-Ka will be limited and only available for a few months. It will feature six Hmong American comfort dishes along with “occasional specials” and desserts:
- Mee-Ka Burger: a cheeseburger spiced up with a hot pepper ranch sauce, which Vang said is “an homage to the Midwest.”
- After School Special: a spin on spaghetti and meatballs that instead features ramen and Hmong sausage, topped with parmesan cheese and spicy Thai red basil sauce.
- Nqaij Tsaws: braised pork with rice, Hmong mustard greens, and roasted veggies.
- Katsu Sando: a pork katsu sandwich on a brioche bun with housemade slaw. “One of the more exciting dishes. The more ‘Instagrammable’ dish,” Vang said.
- The Meat Loaf: “We made a meatloaf with all of the ingredients we remember growing up with,” Vang said. The loaf is a mixture of beef, pork, and glass noodles served over rice instead of potatoes and topped with an oyster sauce ketchup.
- Cobb Laab Salad: a mixed-greens salad incorporating ingredients from Hmong cuisine, with an option to add a side of chicken laab.
The cost of the dishes range from $12 to $22. The pop-up’s hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The restaurant, which does not take reservations, is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Vang said Mee-Ka represents his childhood experience of two cultures merging in his family’s kitchen. At times, he was embarrassed of his Hmong food at school, worried that his white classmates would find it weird. Now, he’s sharing the dishes he often ate growing up—loud and proud.
“We get to be the controller of our narrative. That’s what Mee-Ka is all about,” Vang said. “We don’t have to be ashamed any more. We can just say, ‘Look, this is what we ate.’ This food that we ate, now we get to tell a story about it. In a way, Mee-Ka’s menu is this redemption menu.”
He credits his mom for creating a space where the cultures could combine. He recalled times he came back from school and praised the cheese pizza or spaghetti he had at lunch.
“I remember my mom would try to remake these dishes because it was her way of making us feel like we belong, that this is her way of taking care of us,” he said. “As I grew up, becoming an adult, I realized how important this food is—to make sense as a little eight-year-old kid trying to make sense of, ‘Where do I belong in all of this place?’”
This week, Vang also announced the name of his organization, Hilltribe, that oversees his restaurant and business endeavors. It’s a nod to the Hmong people who lived in the mountains of Laos and other Southeast Asian countries after fleeing persecution in their native China, taking up residence on land that was seen as less desirable by locals who oftentime saw them as “less than,” “dirty,” or “dumb.”
“We just said, ‘Let’s embrace that name. Let’s realize that words don’t define us—we define words,’” Vang said of Hilltribe. “I really love that idea of how our people can be made of all these different groups of people. People might count us out, but we’ll show them that we’re not out of the fight. So, that became our anthem.”
Hilltribe is based at the pop-up restaurant location. The space is also home to the kitchen where food is prepared for Vang’s Union Hmong Kitchen food stall at Graze Provisions + Libations food hall and his Minnesota State Fair food stand.
Vinai, Vang’s brick-and-mortar restaurant, is still in the works, he noted. He remains excited about the project and hopes to share more information when he is able. But for now, foodies can find the chef’s offerings at Hilltribe in Uptown and Graze food hall in the North Loop neighborhood near downtown Minneapolis.
Visit Mee-Ka from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays starting March 29 at 901 W. Lake St. in Uptown Minneapolis.